11 July 2024

A famous Mr Bean episode has him grapple with a wrong exam paper the whole time. He only realises his mistake in the last minute when the supervisor’s announcement makes him aware that he should have taken another envelope containing a different set of questions.

New Pheu Thai leader Paetongtarn Shinawatra is more or less the same. She entered politics thinking that her only challenge was the military, whose “proxy” was Prayut Chan-o-cha. “Dictatorship” was assumed to be her test paper and she thought she had been prepared for all related questions. Her study and mental prep had involved nothing else.

Move Forward was never on her mind. The most that party could do was reducing the scale of an expected Pheu Thai landslide. Paetongtarn and all her handlers or trainers did not coach her to play catch-up. They only taught her what to do while in the lead. She spent the majority of her time in politics treating Move Forward as the closest friend who would never become an enemy.

Suddenly, she has come to the realisation that she should have taken the envelope that said “Move Forward”. Prayut is gone and military-backed parties are in the Pheu Thai coalition government. Her exam questions have little to do with the men in uniform, but a lot with the shocking election results generated on May 14.

On that day, Move Forward won more than 14.4 million votes, compared with Pheu Thai’s 10.96 million. United Thai Nation, which she wrongly considered to be her test question, got 4.76 million. She did not care about Pita Limjaroenrat because she had been the frontrunner in “Who should be prime minister?” opinion polls until the last few days before the election.

It took an unprecedented level of switching of ideological alliance to put Pheu Thai in the government and place Move Forward in the opposition. That, along with the remarkable rise of Move Forward, have changed the complexion of the Thai political game completely.

So, as politically fledgling as she is, Paetongtarn has been given a test far tougher than those handed to, say, Cholanan Srikaew or Yongyuth Wichaidit. Those two had to deal with some powerful enemies but at least they could be dealt with straightforwardly. Paetongtarn has to navigate a narrow tightrope that wasn’t there before, so nobody knows how precarious or treacherous it is.

To add to her hardships, the Pheu Thai apparatus is arguably clumsier than that of Move Forward. Bigger yes, but never younger or fresher. Ones can argue that Pheu Thai is more pragmatic, but the party itself knows it never thrived on “pragmatism” until after May 14 this year. And pragmatism does not win you elections in Thai politics. Boldness does.

Pheu Thai, therefore, is in danger of slipping more and more into pragmatism, which could win political power, while sacrificing idealism, which could win votes. It’s a dilemma that is landing squarely on Paetongtarn. Her predecessors had the political benefits of being seen as victims or underdogs, but she will not get that luxury.

Another complication is her own father. She will face the problem of whatever she does being perceived as containing a proxy agenda. And as everybody knows, Thaksin Shinawatra is both Pheu Thai’s asset and its liability. That was somebody else’s problem until this week. Worse still, she will have to fight against the perception that she is part of the problem herself.

At least there is some good news. Pheu Thai having pro-military camps as coalition partners has somehow decreased cutthroat politics between the second-biggest party and its former rivals. Everyone associated with the party is less afraid nowadays of a party dissolution campaign that could put political futures of executive board members in jeopardy.

Such concern had benefited Pheu Thai somewhat, though. And how its absence can be measured against the fragility of the ideological shift, the phenomenal rise of Move Forward, the comparative old-fashioned image of her own party and, last but not least, the Thaksin issue, remain to be seen.

The Democrats will be “absent” too. By that, Paetongtarn, unlike most of her predecessors, will not have to worry about them. They won a little more than 900,000 votes on May 14, with veterans quitting Thailand’s oldest party almost on a monthly basis. One pre-election statement by a Pheu Thai politician visiting the South is spot-on: We no longer consider the Democrats to be our arch-rivals.

Move Forward the frenemy is now in the opposition, meaning they are now the real opponents. Taking everything into account, they represent a challenge bigger and more complicated than the one Prayut posed. While he and she managed to feed off each other, the new enemy could suck her dry if she is not careful.

When Paetongtarn said a few days ago she was ready for Pheu Thai’s helm, it probably did not sink in yet what she would be into.

Tulsathit Taptim